Eyes of the Guru IDP Info, Part 5: AFC North

An overview of defenses in the AFC North with an emphasis on individual defensive players and their fantasy value.

Links to other divisions:

Baltimore Ravens

Defensive Linemen

The trade for Calais Campbell and the signing of Derek Wolfe could suggest a tweak in the Ravens’ approach going forward. In 2019, Ravens defensive linemen recorded four sacks between them, while Campbell and Wolfe combined for 13.5. At a glance, this is an automatic upgrade but much of the gain could be negated if they ask these guys to play two-gap responsibilities.

Baltimore gave up the fifth-fewest rushing yards in 2019, so last year’s starters did what they were asked too, which was often occupy two-gaps, destroy blocking schemes, and keep the players behind them clean. They were not expected to apply a lot of pass-rush pressure since that was supposed to come from the second-level. Baltimore’s defenses have traditionally been among the league leaders in sacks. So when they totaled 37 last season and ranked in the bottom third of the league, something had to be done.

Over his 12 seasons as a pro, Calais Campbell has been a force on the field and an incredibly productive and consistent player for IDP managers. Despite playing in a 3-4 scheme for much of his career, Campbell has averaged almost eight sacks per season since 2009 and has not fallen short of 34 solo stops in any campaign.

When it comes to placing an IDP value on Campbell for this season, there are some things to consider. The best box score production of his career, including a 14.5 sack season in 2017, came while working in Jacksonville’s 4-3 scheme. Campbell’s best sack production while working in a three-man front is eight. He recorded at least 45 solo tackles in eight of nine seasons leading up to 2019 when his totals dropped to 36 tackles and 6.5 sacks. Campbell turns 34 in September so it is hard to tell if this is a sign of decline or simply a result of Jacksonville’s struggles last season. Then there is the fact no Ravens defensive lineman has made much of a box score impact over the last several years. A great year for Campbell in his current situation would be 45 tackles, 20 assists, and 8 sacks.

Derek Wolfe parlayed his career-best seven sacks in 2019 into a nice free-agent payday from the Ravens. Over his eight seasons with Denver, Wolfe proved to be a quality contributor on the field but never provided consistent fantasy value. His best statistical season came in 2016 38 tackles, 13 assists, and 5 sacks in 14 games. Changing teams can sometimes jumpstart a player’s career, but until we see it, there is no reason to expect more from Wolfe in the box scores than he has shown in the past.

Nose tackle Brandon Williams is the lone returning starter from last season. At 6’1” 336 pounds, he is tough to root out and is a strong anchor for the run defense, but rarely sees action in passing situations. Williams has not recorded more than 38 combined tackles and assist in a season since 2016 and has recorded more than one sack in a season once in seven years.

All three of the Ravens starting linemen are at least 31 years old and Wolfe is a free agent after this season. With that in mind, the organization used some draft capital on Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington in the third and fifth rounds respectively. Madabuike was a three-technique tackle at Texas A&M, where his responsibilities were similar to those a many 3-4 defensive ends. Like the guys ahead of him on the depth chart, Madabuike is a disruptive one-gap penetrator with a strong upside as a pass rusher. Washington is basically a cheaper version of the same skill set. The two rookies will compete this summer for the third-man role, and are possibly competing for a starting spot next season.

Linebackers

No Baltimore inside linebacker recorded more than 49 solo tackles or 3 sacks last season. In fact, everyone that played the position did not reach 100 solo stops combined. It was not as if there were no opportunity, but rather the lack of bonafide NFL quality starters, which directly led to none of them playing more than 484 snaps. That is not going to be an issue this season. The Ravens drafted a pair of starters on the inside, both with the ability to stay on the field full time.

The Ravens filled a major need by drafting Patrick Queen in the first round. He is a do-everything three-down inside linebacker who should be an immediate impact starter both for Baltimore and IDP managers. While he is a bit undersized at 6’0” 229 pounds, Queen makes up for it with instinct, quickness, and tenacity. He is a physical tackler who rarely misses, has good range, excels in coverage, and can get home on the blitz when asked to do so. Indeed the only thing missing from Queen’s resume is eye-catching statistical production from his career at LSU, where he had 37 tackles, 48 assists, and 3 sacks in 15 games last year. He may not be the next Ray Lewis, but Queen has the potential to be Baltimore's next great inside linebacker.

Queen will get all the attention but IDP managers may find surprising value in one of the Ravens third-round picks. Queen is the fast athletic type and will be cast as the weak inside linebacker. Malik Harrison could prove to be the perfect compliment at the strong inside position. Harrison is fast and athletic enough in his own right, but at 6’3” 247 pounds, he is more of a downhill run defender who can take on and shed blocks at the point of attack. Harrison is better than average in coverage while excelling as a pass rusher. He had nine career sacks as a two-year starter for Ohio State, along with solid tackle production and a substantial big-play contribution. In Queen and Harrison, the Ravens have a tandem that closely mirrors division rival Stealers starters Devin Bush and Vince Williams.

Matt Judon is not an elite pass rusher but he has developed into a very dependable all-around edge defender for the Ravens. With 24.5 sacks over the last three seasons and a career-best of 9.5 in 2019, Judon is not likely to contend for a sack title but will make a considerable contribution to the pass rush. The strength of his game is setting the edge versus the run. With the addition of pass rush threats at the defensive end positions for 2020, Judon could reach double digits in sacks for the first time. As is generally the case for edge rushers with positional designations of linebacker, Judon’s fantasy value will depend largely on the scoring system. He will have limited value in balanced or tackle heavy leagues but will be a quality second or an excellent third starter in big-play based formats.

The Ravens are looking for someone to step up at the outside linebacker position opposite Matt Judon. They have high hopes that either 2019 third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson or 2017 third-round selection Tyus Bowser will do so. Bowser out produced Ferguson in sacks last season five to two, but Ferguson saw more playing time over the second half of the year. What seems most likely at this point is the two players continuing in some sort of time-share. That said, the Ravens are intent on improving their pass rush in 2020, so whoever gives them the most production in that area could emerge with a lion’s share of the playing time.

The Ravens went from zero to 100 at inside linebacker with the two rookies, but they remain thin at the position. Chris Board, Jake Ryan, and L.J. Fort will be competing for one or maybe roster spots. The winner of those jobs may be determined by special teams play since the organization already knows none of them are going to be starters short of a desperation situation.

Pernell McPhee adds a little cushion at the outside positions. He lacks the upside of the younger guys but is a proven commodity that can fill in adequately if needed.

Defensive Backs

The Ravens secondary accounted for 295 solo tackles last season, yet no one player had more than 53. They have upgraded the talent in the trenches and filled the void at inside linebacker with a pair of potential franchise players, so there will not be as much opportunity in 2020.

If the Ravens are good at strong safety, this defense could be scary for the next few years. Chuck Clark is the lead candidate for the job. He replaced the injured Tony Jefferson at the position in week six last year and made a good impression. Enough so that his play might have factored into the organization’s decision to part ways with Jefferson, allowing then to save a lot of money. The fact that Baltimore did not address the position over the offseason, is a good indicator they are happy with what they have.

On the field, Clark should continue to make a considerable contribution. Unfortunately for fantasy managers, those contributions will not show up strongly in the box scores. It has been quite some time since a Ravens safety made a big fantasy splash. Scheme and personnel could be some factor in this, but mostly it is the lack of opportunity on a defense that is generally strong in the front seven and tends to see fewer snaps. In 2019 no defense was on the field less than Baltimore.

There were some seasons earlier in his career when Earl Thomas was a strong fantasy contributor as well as one of the NFL’s top big-play safeties. Thomas remains an outstanding deep safety who will make his share of game-changing plays, but it has been a long time since he was last an IDP factor. Thomas serves as the Ravens’ safety net, lining up well off the ball and having limited run support opportunities. In his first year with the team, Thomas averaged two tackles and one assist per game. Chances are he will improve on those numbers in 2020 but not significantly enough for fantasy consideration.

Anthony Levine Sr and DeShon Elliot are the other safeties that could push for time. Levine saw a little action at safety last year when someone needed a breather, but most of his playing time came as a third safety in nickel situations. Elliot spent most of last season recovering from a knee injury after missing all his rookie year in 2018 with a broken arm.

An argument can be made that Baltimore has the best group of safeties in the league. They are certainly both strong and deep at the position. Marlon Humphrey is a great example of how much having great players around a guy can impact box score production, particularly at the corner positions. Over his first two seasons, Humphrey was the Ravens number one corner. In 2017 and 2018 he combined for 61 tackles, 9 assists, 4 interceptions, and a forced fumble. In 2019 the Ravens traded for Marcus Peters who is an elite cover corner and the top big-play threat in the league. As a result, Humphrey’s numbers jumped to 53 tackles, 11 assists, 3 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, and a pair of scores, making him a top-five corner. Chances are his numbers will fall back to earth a little in 2020 but opponents will no longer be able to simply avoid Humphrey as they once did.

Marcus Peters has averaged fewer than 38 solo tackles over the last four seasons but he is the only defender in the league that can be counted on for at least one defensive touchdown every year. The lack of tackle numbers makes him a boom or bust fantasy option on a week to week basis but when he booms, Peters can win the game both for his team and yours. Peters is a gambler that wins a lot and tends to have a lot more boom games than most. He will give up a big play now and then but has accounted for 41 takeaways (29 interceptions), and 7 scores in five seasons.

Behind Humphry and Peters are former first-round selection (2011) Jimmy Smith who is a seven-year starter for the team, fifth-year pro, Tavon Young who has played well when healthy, and third-year man Anthony Averett who has also looked good when called upon over his first two seasons.

Cincinnati Bengals

Defensive Linemen

The Cincinnati defense was nothing short of horrendous last season. They finished dead last rushing yards allowed and were 26th in yards per carry at 4.7. They were 21st in passing yards allowed but dead last in yards per attempt at 8.3. Only five teams had fewer sacks and they were near the bottom of the league in takeaways.

When the new regime took over in 2019, they did not make a lot os sweeping personnel changes. Instead, they used the season mostly to evaluate what they had and position themselves to go get the guys they needed. When they hit the practice field in late July, this will be a younger, much faster, and more athletic unit that should look immensely different in a lot of ways.

One position the team did not have to address was defensive end where both Carlos Dunlap and Sam Hubbard turned in great performances. There are few defensive linemen more consistent and dependable than Dunlap. He has reached double-digit sacks once in his ten seasons yet has not fallen short of seven and a half since becoming a starter in 2012. He has reached 40 solo tackles twice including last year and has not fallen short of 30 since 2011.

Two big advantages to Dunlap’s value in many IDP formats are his penchant for batting down passes when he does not get home on a pass rush and causing fumbles when he does. Dunlap has forced 19 fumbles over the last eight seasons and has a league-high (among defensive linemen) 38 batted passes over the last four years. He finished among the top-10 at the position in 2019 despite missing two games and is a good bet to be at least a quality DL2 again in 2020

Sam Hubbard was a bright spot for the Bengals in a generally dismal 2019 season. The 2018 third-round pick showed great promise as a rookie. Working as part of a rotation he recorded 28 solo tackles, 6 sacks, and scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery. Last year the starting job belonged to Hubbard from the start and he stepped up big in the three-down role. When all the numbers were in, Hubbard’s 48 solo tackles were third-most in the league among defensive linemen, his eight and a half sacks were more than respectable, and he was a top-10 lineman in IDP leagues. Hubbard was not known as a great edge rusher during his career at Ohio State and seems no threat to challenge for the league sack title, but the 24-year-old has a long and prosperous career ahead of him that could include several more top-10 finishes.

Carl Lawson has proven himself as a passing-down specialist that can get to the quarterback, but a bigger role is not in his foreseeable future. Lawson is undersized and needs to improve as a run defender. That said, he has added size each offseason since joining the team in 2017. Lawson is expected to be a bigger contributor in 2020 but may not get enough playing time to have much fantasy impact.

After being among the game’s elite interior linemen for most of the past decade, Geno Atkins saw a considerable drop in production last year. For the first time since he was a rookie in 2010, Atkins recorded fewer than eight sacks in a season not impacted by an injury, along with his lowest tackle total since 2013.

Entering season 11 and at age 32, some believe Atkins has begun to decline. While that is a possibility, it is more likely he simply missed the presence of a quality big man next to him. For most of his career, Atkins had a Domata Peko Sr type nose tackle beside him. An anchor that would often force opponents to commit more than one blocker on run plays, allowing Atkins to work against single blockers. With the signing of D.J. Reader, Cincinnati has that than guy again. Last year’s slump will push Atkins out of the minds of many IDP managers, making him a high potential bounce-back player and a late-round steal in tackle required leagues.

Reader is a 347-pound road grader who can anchor the run game and push the pocket when opponents pass. He will command double teams regularly, taking pressure off Atkins and helping the linebackers behind him find a clear path to the ball. Reader’s presence should have a considerable impact on several of Cincinnati’s defenders and the unit as a whole, but his contribution on the field is not likely to reflect so well in the box scores.

With Atkins and Reader on the inside, Carlos Dunlap and Sam Hubbard on the outside, and better playmakers at linebacker, 2020 should be a much better year for both Atkins and the Bengals defense as a whole.

Linebackers

The Bengals have settled for mediocre play at middle linebacker for most of the last two decades. Never was their need at the position more obvious than in 2019. It was surprising but understandable when the team passed on linebacker at the top of the second round in this year’s draft since they got a talented wide receiver which was another position of need. When Logan Wilson was still available in round three, Cincinnati finally got their man.

Wilson is a true three-down middle linebacker as well as a leader who was a three-time captain at Wyoming. At 6’2” and 241 pounds, he has the size and mentality of a physical run defender with the speed and cover skills that come from being a former safety. Wilson was highly productive as a four-year starter at Wyoming, where he totaled 249 solo tackles, 160 assists, and 14 passes defended. The organization is also excited about Wilson’s big-play ability. His college career included 10 interceptions, 5 forced fumbles, 4 recoveries, and 3 scores. He even displayed the ability to rush the passer with seven career sacks. Because he was a third-round selection, a lot of IDP managers will undervalue Wilson on draft day. That could make him a mid to late-round steal, particularly in dynasty formats.

Josh Bynes is the epitome of an NFL journeyman. He has now changed teams five times in eight seasons as a pro. Ironically, Bynes seems to end up on the field a lot wherever he lands. He is a versatile player with the ability to work from any second-level position in a 4-3. He is a dependable tackler in run support with enough speed and coverage skills to handle a three-down role in a pinch.

Bynes expected role with the Bengals is unclear heading into the summer. He is the team’s most experienced linebacker and should land at least a two-down role, but ultimately his playing time and fantasy prospect depend on how well Logan Wilson, Jermaine Pratt, and possibly even Akeem Davis-Gaither progress. Chances are, Bynes will end up a two down strong side linebacker, replacing the departed Nick Vigil. Regardless of how he is used, Bynes has limited IDP value. At best he is a serviceable backup with marginal upside.

Germaine Pratt made a strong impression as a rookie. The 2019 third-round pick broke into the starting lineup coming out of the team’s week eight bye. He worked mostly at the weakside position but was not able to secure an every-down role. Pratt logged 443 total snaps on the season or roughly 43% of the team’s defensive plays, which makes his 52 solo tackles and 24 assists rather impressive. He has ideal size, good speed, and is far from a liability in coverage. In fact, Pratt was a free safety at the beginning of his college career and was seen by some scouts as the best coverage linebacker in the 2019 draft. He is an aggressive, physical run defender as well, and was a playmaker at North Carolina State. Indeed, all signs point toward Pratt being on the field full time in 2020. If he picks up where he left off in terms of production, he could be a breakout player in IDP formats.

Akeem Gaither-Davis is the wildcard in Cincinnati’s linebacker room. The team’s fourth-round pick is a rangy, high-energy outside linebacker with good speed and cover skills. As a two year starter in college, Davis-Gatier demonstrated the ability to stack and shed blockers and make plays against the run. He made a lot of them in fact, finishing with 96 combined tackles as a junior and 101 last season as a senior. He had just a pair of turnovers in his college career but demonstrated an ability to make plays as a pass rusher off the edge, recording six and a half total sacks with five in 2019.

The concerns with Davis-Gaither are his diminutive size for a linebacker at 215 pounds, and the fact he did not face top-level competition in the Sun Belt Conference while playing for Appalachian State. He fits the Bengals new blueprint of speed and cover skills at the second level and could make some noise this summer. At worst Davis-Gaither will provide depth on the weak side and contribute on special teams.

Free-agent addition Austin Calitro, fourth-year man Jordan Evans, and rookie seventh-round pick Markus Bailey will likely compete for two remaining roster spots dedicated to the linebacker position. There is a chance the Bengals will keep all three based on their special team's ability.

Defensive Backs

The addition of free-agent Vonn Bell brings questions to the Bengals safety positions or at least the strong safety spot. Some believe Bell was signed to replace Shawn Williams at strong safety but that is not necessarily the case. Williams has played and produced well in each of the last two years, contributing greatly as both an in the box run supporter and an intimidating presence over the middle in the passing game. He has not been a liability in any aspect and indeed has done nothing to suggest Bell would be an upgrade. It seems more likely the Bengals will look to put both Williams and Bell on the field at the same time regularly, joining the growing trend of NFL teams using a big nickel as their base defense.

Williams was the fantasy game’s top defensive back in 2018. While his tackle totals were virtually the same last season, reduced big-play production dropped him into the DB2 range statistically. Clearly, there is some risk and uncertainty with Williams in terms of IDP value as we head into training camps, but we should not write him off by any stretch. My suggestion would be to target him as a DB3 with upside.

It took Vonn Bell four years to earn a full-time strong safety job in New Orleans. For much of his first three seasons there, Bell served as the third safety seeing action in the Saints big-nickel base scheme but leaving the field on roughly 20% of the snaps. While he had a good share of productive games, those missing snaps held his fantasy value in check, making Bell an inconsistent third starter for IDP managers. He was on the field virtually every snap through the first 13 games of 2019 and was far more than a third starter. Bell set career marks in tackles and big-plays while averaging better than 13 fantasy points per game which were the second-most in the league.

What remains to be confirmed is Bell’s role with his new team. It is widely speculated that he will replace Williams as the starting strong safety but that is not written in stone. It is possible, if not likely that Bell will once again be one of the three starting safeties in a big nickel base scheme. This situation leaves us guessing as to Bell’s IDP value in 2020. Chances are high that he will be a considerable IDP contributor but that could mean anything from a third starter to top-10. The only thing certain as of mid-July, taking Bell as your DB1 based on last year’s numbers is a huge risk.

While the rest of the safety situation is clear as mud, Jessie Bates III’ job at free safety is not in question. The 2018 second-round pick became an immediate starter and wasted no time making an impact. With 141 solo tackles and 7 takeaways in two seasons, Bates has proven to be a playmaker against both run and pass. With an average of nearly 11 fantasy points per game and a pair of top-10 finishes among defensive backs, he has proven to be a strong IDP contributor as well. That said, Bates could see some drop off in tackle totals in 2020. Simply put, there will be more competition for tackles due to the addition of Bell and considerable improvement in the front seven. Bates should still provide good value as a DB2 or DB3 with big-play upside, but his week to week consistency could suffer.

Injuries contributed considerably to last year’s dismal performance against the pass, but the Bengals were not going to wait around and hope for guys to get healthy. The organization made sweeping changes at the top of the cornerback depth chart. William Jackson III III survived but Cincinnati parted ways with former first-round picks Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard who had been starters on the outside and in the slot respectively.

Jackson is one of the league’s most underrated cover corners because he does not make a lot of splash plays or tackles. That is largely because opponents respect him enough to look the other way when possible. Jackson’s best tackle production was in 2018 when he had 34 solo and 7 assists. There is no reason to expect anything different from him going forward.

Former Viking Trae Waynes was brought in to start opposite Jackson. He is not a major upgrade over Kirkpatrick in terms of coverage, but there are neither questions about his health nor Waynes' ability to handle the number two role. While with the Vikings, the former 11th overall pick (2015) spent time as everything from the team’s number one to their nickel corner. Waynes has never been more than a low CB2 or depth in IDP terms. His most productive campaign came in 2017 when he and Xavier Rhodes were sort of co-No. 1s. That season Waynes totaled 57-7-1 with 11 pass breakups and a pair of interceptions. Cincinnati corners have made a lot of tackles in recent seasons, but a lot has changed with this defense. Waynes is not a draft target at this point, but if he gets off to a hot start, pick him up quickly.

Cincinnati plucked a pair of former Minnesota corners out of free agency this offseason, with Mackenzie Alexander being the second. The 2016 second-round pick settled into the slot/nickel role in 2018 and stayed there through last season. He is the lead candidate for the same role with the Bengals, though he mich not see the field as much if I am right about their using a lot of three-safety looks.

Several players will compete to fill out the rest of Cincinnati’s depth chart at corner. Former Tennessee nickel back Leshaun Sims and third-year Bengal Tony Brown are fairly safe bets to make the roster and play a lot on special teams.

  • FS Jessie Bates III – Solid DB3 with a little upside
  • SS Shawn Williams – DB2 ceiling, DB5 floor, pretty much anything could happen here
  • SS Vonn Bell – Same as Williams with maybe a little less risk
  • FS Brandon Wilson – No impact expected
  • CB Trae Waynes – Potential CB2
  • CB William Jackson III III – No IDP value
  • CB Makensie Alexander – No fantasy impact
  • CB Leshaun Sims – No impact
  • CB Darius Phillips – No impact

Cleveland Browns

Defensive Linemen

Heading into last season the Browns were Super Bowl contenders but when the year was over they were just the same old Browns. Since that time, people have been dissecting this organization from ownership to the water boy in an attempt to figure out what caused the short circuit. What most finally figured out is that championships are not won on paper. No matter how much talent is assembled, there has to be chemistry. Maybe this will be the year they put everything together. They certainly have the talent on the defensive line to build a foundation.

From an NFL perspective, the Browns have an outstanding tandem of interior linemen in Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi. From the fantasy perspective, they had the best duo in the game last season hands down, with both of these guys finishing in the top-12. Richardson and Ogunjobi are athletic big men that are both versatile and interchangeable pieces. This gives the coaching staff a lot of options when it comes to how and where they line up across the front.

Richardson started his career as a 3-4 defensive end with the Jets, recording the best statistical production of his career in 2014 with 42 tackles, 24 assists, and 8 sacks. He was slowed by injuries for a couple of years and had become somewhat of a journeyman before joining Cleveland, playing with four different teams between 2016 and 2019. Richardson seems to have found a home with the Browns where he is under contract through 2021.

Richardson has not come close to the eight sacks in any other season but is a strong run defender who will contribute to the pass rush. In his first year with the Browns, he finished with 43 tackles, 19 assists, and 3 sacks for a fantasy ranking among the top-five interior linemen. Similar numbers would be realistic expectations for 2020 but with all the talent Cleveland has assembled along the front line, Richardson could produce significantly better if the unit jells.

Ogunjobi is a versatile big man that can line up at either of the defensive tackle positions and can even fill in at defensive end in a pinch. That versatility allows the coaching staff to keep him on the field in any situation. This combination of ability and opportunity helped make Ogunjobi the number-12 interior lineman in 2019. Despite being suspended for a game, his 36 solo tackles were fifth-most among defensive tackles with his five and a half sacks ranking eleventh. Ogunjobi had very similar totals in 2018 so there is no reason to expect less from him going forward. In leagues that lump defensive line positions together, Ogunjobi is not much more than depth with matchup based upside. In formats requiring interior linemen, however, he is a quality DT1.

Grand expectations were heaped on Myles Garrett when the Browns took him first overall in 2017. Other than getting himself ejected from the week eleven game last year and then suspended for the rest of the season, he has done nothing to disappoint. Rookie defensive ends rarely produce great numbers so Garrett’s seven sacks in 2017 were considered a successful start. In his second season, Garrett showed the organization they had made a good decision. With 35 tackles, 9 assists, 13.5 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles, he ranked fifth in sacks and was a top-12 defensive lineman in fantasy circles. Garrett took the next step in 2019 when he was on pace for 38 tackles, 20 sacks, and was the fantasy game’s number three lineman through eight games. Considering he is 24 years old and just entering the prime of his career, no one should be surprised if Garrett is in the running for a sack title and/or the top IDP ranking at the position in 2020.

When the Browns acquired Olivier Vernon from the Giants last offseason, they believed he would be an excellent bookend to Myles Garrett. Like just about everything else in Cleveland last year, it did not work out as planned. Vernon battled a sore hamstring during the camp and the effects lingered into the regular season. Once he finally got on track, Vernon had a strong five-game stretch that included three sacks, before suffering a knee sprain in week nine. He was not placed on IR but the sore knee virtually ended his season. When healthy Vernon is a dependable run defender who will contribute strongly to the pass rush. His only season with double-digit sacks was 2013 but Vernon averaged better than seven and a half between 2013 and 2018 If he can stay healthy, the 29-year-old may finally prove to be an excellent complement to Garrett. For IDP managers looking for quality depth with DL2 upside, he could prove a solid late-round addition.

As of mid-July the Brown have made no significant additions along the defensive line, but they have reportedly explored the possibility of signing Jadaveon Clowney. That could be construed as a sign of lacking confidence in Vernon, or it could simply be a team exploring all opportunities to get better. It seems unlikely they will be adding Clowney, but both Everson Griffen and Markus Golden remain available also, and they would be cheaper.

Cleveland is both talented and deep along the front line. On the interior, they have veteran Andrew Billings who has been a starter in Cincinnati for the last two seasons, and third-round pick Jordan Elliot. Elliot is a strong run defender with a second gear to get after the passer. He needs some work but could be groomed to start in the near future since Ogunjobi is in the final year of his current contract.

Between injuries and suspension, both starting defensive ends missed time last year. Chad Thomas filled in nicely, recording 17 tackles, 9 assists, and 4 sacks on less than half of the defensive snaps. Cleveland also signed Adrian Clayborn to provide veteran depth. He has 37 career sacks including 9.5 while with the Falcons in 2017. Clayborn has plenty of starting experience and is a strong run defender, capable of playing on all three downs.

Linebackers

Cleveland has an interesting situation at linebacker. Former starters Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey are wearing different colors in 2020 so there is no established pecking order or even positions among those vying for jobs.

When Kirksey was lost in week two, then-rookie fifth-round pick Mack Wilson got the call and played virtually every snap on the weak side the rest of the way. Despite the opportunity, Wilson was not particularly impressive either on the field or in the box scores. He made a few big plays with a sack, two turnovers, and seven pass breakups, but totaled just 57 tackles and 25 assists on 960 snaps. Wilson played his college ball at Alabama where he faced some of the top competition in the country, but his numbers there were nothing to get excited about either. In 2018 he totaled 33 tackles, 32 assists, 1 sack, and a pair of interceptions in 14 games.

Sione Takitaki was also a rookie in 2019. The third-round pick worked with the second team at middle linebacker during the preseason and made a good impression, but did not make his first game appearance on defense until week nine. Takitaki saw limited action the rest of the way, finishing with 15 tackles and 7 assists on 107 snaps. It was a small sample size for comparison, but if we project Takitaki’s per-play averages over the same number of snaps Wilson had, we get 135 tackles and 63 assists.

We find the same sort of disparity when comparing the college production of these two guys. Takitaki played at Brigham Young which is not like playing in the SEC but is also a good division one school. As a senior at BYU in 2018, Takitaki recorded 75 tackles, 44 assists, and 4 sacks in 13 games. One scouting report ahead of last year’s draft described Takitaki as a versatile athlete that played multiple roles in the BYU defense with infectious passion and hustle. That same draft profile suggested he would best fit as a 4-3 weakside linebacker at the pro level.

Rookie third-round pick Jacob Phillips will also be in the mix for a starting spot but might be a year or two away from landing one. He is a natural athlete with good size and excellent speed but is a raw talent when it comes to instincts and reaction time, and he makes too many mistakes in coverage. Phillips relied greatly on speed and athleticism in college and we know that dog doesn’t hunt at the NFL level. That said, he was a productive two-year starter at LSU with 113 combined tackles as a junior last year. Phillips has the tools and talent to become an outstanding NFL player with some good coaching, but not having an offseason program and the ability to work with NFL coaches will hurt his chances of starting this year.

The most experienced linebacker on Cleveland’s roster is journeyman B.J. Goodson. A fourth-round pick by the Giants in 2016, Goodson joins his third team in four seasons. He had an opportunity to start for New York in 2018 and made such an impression that he was sent to the Packers before the start of 2019. Goodson played 256 snaps for the Packers and was not offered a contract after last season. Unless their group of young guys totally bombs, it is hard to see a path that leads to a starting role for Goodson.

Many expect Mack Wilson to start in the middle with either Sione Takitaki or Jacob Phillips on the weak-side, but in reality, this is as undecided a competition as we will see anywhere this summer. As of mid-July, the Browns coaching staff does not know who will start where and will likely look as several combinations before making that decision. What we do know, is that whoever earns the starting jobs at either spot will have a golden opportunity and a ton of fantasy potential. Let us just hope there is a training camp and preseason so we can figure it out before drafting.

  • MLB/WLB Sione Takitaki – Sleeper with big upside
  • WLB/MLB Mack Wilson – Top target of the group for most managers, but I’m pessimistic about his value
  • MLB Jacob Phillips – Sleeper with good upside for this year, better as a dynasty/taxi prospect
  • MLB/SLB B.J. Goodson – Limited IDP value even if he wins a job
  • WLB Tae Davis – No impact expected

Defensive Backs

The situation at linebacker could spell a little extra opportunity at the safety positions, where there will also be new faces in the starting lineup. Cleveland landed former Raiders first-round pick Karl Joseph via free agency, then used a second-round selection on LSU starter Grant Delpit in the draft. Both players are in line to be week one starters, with relatively little competition.

Joseph replaces Damarious Randall at free safety. Injuries were a considerable factor in Joseph not living up to expectations with his former team. He was not able to complete a full slate of games in any of his four seasons with Oakland. Possibly the biggest disappointment, however, was a lack of anticipated big-play production. Joseph totaled just four interceptions in 49 games. He was the consensus number one safety in his draft class in 2016 and has both the physical tools and opportunity to be a breakout candidate if he can finally stay healthy. There is plenty of potential and the Browns are rolling the dice in the hope a change of scenery will jumpstart what has been a lackluster career to date.

The Browns may have gotten a steal in second-round pick Grant Delpit. The rookie has a great combination of size, speed, athleticism, and experience, along with a history of quality production as a three-year starter at LSU. Many believe he would have been a mid-first-round pick had he not played through injuries that affected his performance in 2019. Delpit has the skillset to play either safety position but projects to play strong safety for the Browns. He is a physical and willing tackler in run support with the speed, cover skills, and ball-hawking nature of a free safety. When healthy in 2018, Delpit recorded 74 combined tackles along with five of his eight career interceptions for the Tigers. With questions surrounding the second level of Cleveland’s defense, the rookie safety could be in for a busy first season.

The Browns played a nickel base defense in 2019. It is hard to say if they will continue to follow this path but they do have the personnel to do it. Andrew Sendejo was a starter at strong safety for the Vikings from 2015 to 2018. He lacks the range and cover skills to line up deep but could be a good fit as an in the box safety/linebacker hybrid. At the very least he is a good insurance plan in the event of injuries.

Sheldrick Redwine was a fourth-round pick last spring and started several games for Cleveland down the stretch after the team parted ways with Jermaine Whitehead. Redwine did an adequate job and could eventually get another shot at starting. He should earn the backup spot behind Joseph who always misses at least a few games.

In 2018 fourth overall pick Denzel Ward and last year’s second-round selection Greedy Williams, the Browns believe they have a great starting tandem on the corners for the next several seasons. They might be right about that but we have not yet seen enough to be sure. Both players missed the same four games with injuries in 2019. The other 12 games produced mixed results. Ward played well, for the most part, and has the makings of an elite NFL corner. His 39 tackles, 6 assists, 11 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions added up to a little better than 9.3 fantasy points per game, which was good enough for 16th last season and was very close to the 9.6 points he averaged as a rookie. Both the Browns and IDP managers would like to see him make a few more splash plays but that wish may never be granted. Even dating back to his Ohio State days, Ward has never recorded more than three turnovers in a season.

Williams looked better on the field than in the box scores as a rookie, which is not saying much and is somewhat unusual at the same time, especially for a rookie starting opposite a talented cover man like Ward. He showed the normal learning curve, making some mistakes along the way and learning from them, but Williams was not able to take advantage of the extra attention offenses gave him. In 12 games he defended all of two passes and failed to record any big-plays. Unlike his counterpart, however, Williams does have a history of making splash-plays. He totaled eight picks and broke up 19 passes as a two-year starter for LSU. Williams had no fantasy impact last year thus is not on anyone’s radar this draft season, but if he comes out hot in September, consider picking him up if you must start corners.

Terrance Mitchell projects as the nickel corner. He has battled injuries over much of his five years as a pro, but when healthy and given an opportunity, he puts up good numbers. Mitchell started 10 games for the Chiefs in 2017, recording 48 tackles, 17 passes defended and 4 interceptions.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Defensive Linemen

It is a shame the Steelers offense struggled so badly after the loss of Ben Roethlisberger because the defense had a phenomenal year. Pittsburgh led the league with 54 sacks, led the league in opponents fumbles recovered with 18, and led the league in takeaways with a whopping 38. They had the second-most interceptions at 20 and forced the second-most forced fumbles at 22. They had the third-best run defense at 3.8 yards per rush and were sixth versus the pass at 6.7 yards per attempt. After a season like that, it is no wonder the organization made a few personnel changes as possible.

Like a fine wine, Cameron Heyward just gets better with time. He has been a cornerstone for the Steelers defense since becoming a starter in 2013 and has been a fantasy contributor since that time as well. Early in his career, Heyward could be counted on for tackle totals in the 35 solo range and 5-7 sacks. Then in 2107, he recorded his normal 30 tackles but unexpectedly exploded for a dozen sacks. In 2019 Heyward had the most prolific fantasy production of his career with 50 tackles, 32 assists, and 9 sacks, landing among the top-five in most formats. Both the 12 sacks in 2017 and the big tackle totals from last year are career outliers at this point, but the fact they both happened over three-seasons suggests they may be somewhat of the new norm for him. Heyward is a safe bet to put up at least 55 combined tackles and 8 sacks, making him a rock-solid target as a second starter with top-10 potential.

Stephon Tuitt is a perfect fit in the Steelers scheme. He is big enough to hold at the point of attack, with enough quickness and athleticism to contribute as a pass rusher. The only issue with Tuitt is an inability to stay healthy. He has not completed a full season since becoming a starter in 2015 and is coming off a pectoral surgery that cost him ten games last year. Tuitt’s best boxscore production was in 2015 with 39 tackles, 14 assists, and 6.5 sacks in 14 games. In the six games before his injury last season, he was on pace for 48 tackles, 11 assists, and 9.5 sacks. Poor overall numbers in recent years will keep him off many draft boards. While he is too much of a risk to count on as a starter, Tuitt could be a last-round steal if he manages to stay on the field.

The only significant loss for the Steelers defense this offseason is nose tackle Javon Hargraves who signed with the Eagles. Daniel McCullers is the likely candidate to replace him though swingman Tyson Alualu is also an option as is second-year pro, Isaiah Buggs. McCullers has been with the team since 2014 and has 21 career tackles with 18 assists and 2.5 sacks. Not the kind of production that strikes fear into opponents. The addition of defensive end Chris Wormley could be a sign that Alualu will play the nose in 2020. Alualu is the guy Pittsburgh has turned to when Tuitt has been hurt, but he is capable of playing any defensive line position in the 3-4 scheme. None of the current options are likely to match the 35-23-4 mark put up by Hargraves last season.

  • DE Cameron Heyward – Priority DL2 with top-10 potential
  • DE Stephon Tuitt – DL2 upside if he can stay healthy
  • DE/NT Tyson Alualu – Marginal value at best
  • DE/NT Isaiah Buggs – No impact expected
  • DE Chris Wormley – Marginal value at best
  • DE Carlos Davis – Developmental rookie with potential to start at some point
  • NT Daniel McCullers – Marginal impact at best

Linebackers

The Steelers parted ways with inside linebacker Mark Barron at the end of last season. He was officially a starter next to Devin Bush, but moving on from Barron may be a case of addition by subtraction.

Bush was arguably the top inside linebacker in the 2019 draft. He has the range, speed, cover skills, and leadership qualities that should make him the centerpiece of the Steelers defense for the next several years. Bush put up good numbers as a rookie, making solid contributions in the tackles columns while providing seven turnovers, a sack, and a defensive score, for a final ranking in the mid-teens. His numbers were solid for a rookie but are particularly impressive considering he saw action on roughly 82% of the defensive snaps. In all, Bush was on the sideline for 194 plays or about three games worth of action. In 2019, Pittsburgh had a three-headed monster at inside linebacker with Barron, and Vince Williams also seeing rotational action. Now that Barron is gone, Bush is all but certain to stay on the field full time. The additional opportunities should push him up the rankings, probably into the top-12.

Vince Williams is not the most complete of inside linebackers, but the Steelers coaching staff knows how to bring out the best in him. His greatest strength is as a physical downhill thumper against the run. While Williams can be somewhat of a liability in coverage, he has shown plenty of success as a pass rusher, with 15 sacks over the last three seasons. Williams earned a starting spot next to Ryan Shazier in 2017. As Shazier’s sidekick, he saw action on about 75% of the snaps, recording 69 tackles, 20 assists, and 8 sacks. Without Barron to poach snaps, Williams should return to a similar role, with LB3 range production in 2020.

With names like Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Joey Porter, Chad Brown, Jason Gildenn, and James Harrison, the Steelers have given us some great outside linebacker tandems over the years. After getting 14.5 sacks from T.J. Watt and 11.5 from Bud Dupree last season, it might be time to add this dup to the list.

Entering his fourth season as a pro, T.J. Watt is well established as one of the league’s elite edge defenders. Over the last two seasons, he has 28.5 sacks, 14 forced fumbles, 4 recoveries, and a pair of interceptions. On the field, there is no real weakness in Watt’s game. In fantasy terms, he is just like most 3-4 outside rushers in that his value depends largely on league format. In big-play based scoring Watt is a top-10 LB1. For those in balanced or tackle heavy formats, his value will be reduced considerably due to marginal tackle totals. That said, even his meager 35 tackles and 20 assists last season were not enough to keep Watt out of the top-20 in balanced scoring leagues. He will be hard-pressed to match last year’s 14 turnovers but he should rebound a bit in the tackle columns, getting closer to the 52 solo stops he recorded in 2018. Target Watt as a third starter that will be a little inconsistent but will have some monster games when he hits on any given week.

There were big expectations placed on Bud Dupree when he was selected in the first round back in 2015. Through his first four seasons, he failed to live up to them. Dupree got off to a good start in 2016 before missing the final nine games. He then was able to muster only five and a half sacks in each of the following two seasons. In 2019 it all came together for Dupree when he racked up 47 tackles, 11.5 sacks, and forced 4 fumbles. If he can prove last season to be the new norm rather than an outlier in a contract year, Dupree will be a hot commodity in big-play based formats this year. Like most 3-4 outside linebackers, however, his value will be significantly less in balanced or tackle heavy leagues.

The Steelers selected Alex Highsmith in the third round, making him their highest pick on the defensive side. Dupree is nearing the end of his contract which will expire at the end of 2021, so in typical Steelers fashion, they have taken steps to prepare. Highsmith has the right skill set for the Pittsburgh scheme and should see action as the third man on the edge during his rookie campaign.

  • ILB Devin Bush – Priority LB2 with Elite tier potential
  • ILB Vince Williams – Target as depth with LB3 potential
  • ILB Ulysees Gilbert III – No impact expected
  • OLB T.J. Watt – Elite LB1 in big-play based schemes, priority LB3 in balanced leagues
  • OLB Bud Dupree – Was he a one-hit-wonder or was 2019 his breakout season?
  • OLB Alex Highsmith – Developmental rookie with long term potential
  • OLB Tuzar Skipper – No impact expected.

Defensive Backs

When Sean Davis was lost to injury in week two last season, it was a blow to the Steelers secondary, but the team managed to turn the tables. Had they not lost Davis, the organization probably would not have gone after the trade that brought Minkah Fitzpatrick to Pittsburgh. Paired with Terrell Edmunds at strong safety, the Steelers now have one of the best tandems in the league at the position.

He does not have the hair, but in many other ways, Fitzpatrick is a reincarnation of former Steelers great Troy Polamalu. Not only does Fitzpatrick display the same knack for game-changing plays, but the coaching staff used him in a similar fashion as well. Fitzpatrick is officially listed as a free safety but his skill set allows the coaching staff to move him around, putting him in a position to take advantage of matchups and allowing Fitzpatrick to be aggressive. Even as a newcomer to the team starting in week three, he was able to parlay the opportunity and freedom into nine turnovers and a pair of scores for the Steelers. As was the case with Polamalu, Fitzpatrick’s tackle production may be sparse at times, leading to an issue of week-to-week inconsistency, but he will have a lot of big games along the way.

Terell Edmunds checks in at 6'2" 220 pounds and is like having an extra, really fast linebacker roaming the secondary. As a rookie in 2018, he was often part of three-safety sets and was asked to play off the ball a lot. That led to marginal box score production but supplied much-needed experience. It also allowed the defensive coaches to see what they had in Edmunds. His combination of speed, instinct, ability to diagnose quickly, and sureness as a tackler in the open field, made Edmunds the perfect complement to the team's new playmaker. He does not line up in the box as often as IDP managers would like. With Fitzpatrick moving around a lot, Edmunds had instead become the Steelers safety net much of the time, tasked with cleaning up any mistakes others may make. It is a role similar to that of Ryan Clark and Chris Hope back when Troy Polamalu roamed the Pittsburgh secondary. The difference being that Edmunds is a more talented player than those that came before him. Because of his responsibilities, Edmunds is not able to take many chances and thus is unlikely likely to provide a lot of big-play production. As he displayed in 2019, however, he can make up for it with quality tackle numbers.

With Mark Barron gone and Vince Williams somewhat of a liability in coverage, Pittsburgh may look to use more three-safety sets again in 2020. That could aloe rookie Antoine Brooks Jr Jr. to get on the field. At 5’11”, 220 pounds, Brooks is a safety/linebacker hybrid. He is not at rangy as most safeties but does a good job in traffic, tackles well, and is opportunistic in terms of big-play ability.

Historically the Steelers have provided little IDP help at the corner positions. That changed last season when Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, and Steven Nelson all exceeded 50 solo tackles. Hilton and Nelson were a little light in the big-play columns but were productive enough to be roster worthy spot starters in leagues starting two corners. Haden, on the other hand, was the number five corner on the strength of 59 tackles, 7 turnovers, and 16 passes defended. It was the highest IDP ranking of his career but not the first time Haden has been a fantasy factor. He has a handful of top-25 finishes over the last decade, including each of the last two seasons. Counting on Haden as your CB1 might be a stretch, but he has value as a second starter or excellent depth.

The Steelers have fairly good depth at corner in a pair of former third-round picks. Cameron Sutton has been mostly a dime sub-package contributor over his three seasons with the team but is capable if called upon. Justin Layne saw little action on defense as a rookie, playing mostly on special teams, but is a player that could develop into a major contributor down the road.

That is going to do it for the AFC North; the NFC North is up next.

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